Center for American Progress

RELEASE: In a Warming Arctic, Construction of New Icebreakers a Matter of Urgent Environmental and National Security
Press Release

RELEASE: In a Warming Arctic, Construction of New Icebreakers a Matter of Urgent Environmental and National Security

Washington, D.C. — A rapidly warming Arctic requires President Barack Obama and Congress to fund construction of new heavy icebreaking ships for the U.S. Coast Guard or else accept grave risks to the U.S. environment and national security, explains a new issue brief from the Center for American Progress.

“Without new heavy icebreaking capacity to oversee burgeoning activity in the Arctic, U.S. security there will be in the hands of Russia and other nations that are investing in their Arctic future,” said the issue brief’s author, Shiva Polefka, a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. “By funding new icebreakers for the Coast Guard, the United States would concretely affirm its leadership in the region, to complement the diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry as he assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May.”

Climate change, impending oil and gas development, and geopolitical uncertainty mean the United States needs a sustained presence in the Arctic more than ever before. Yet continued neglect from appropriators has left the Coast Guard less prepared for Arctic duty than it has been in decades. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has scheduled a hearing for 10 a.m. today—called by Committee Chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)—to discuss plans for economic development in the Arctic and the investments needed to carry out these plans safely.

The issue brief points out that there has traditionally been bipartisan support for the U.S. Coast Guard’s polar missions, championed by members of Congress such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), as well as President George H.W. Bush.

“Icebreakers are critical to our national security and our economic interests in the Arctic. And the Coast Guard needs more of them,” Sen. Cantwell said. “Today, the Coast Guard only has two icebreakers in operation—one heavy and one medium. This is not sufficient to meet the demands of a rapidly changing Arctic region.”

The issue brief illuminates the linkages between climate change and these urgent security and environmental demands in the Arctic and calls for reinvigorated bipartisan action to fund and build new icebreakers for the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Equipping the Coast Guard with the ships it needs for a changing Arctic makes sense for numerous reasons, from national security and maritime safety to environmental protection and resource development,” added Polefka. “The Coast Guard deployed 60 vessels in its response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. With the Department of Interior proposing new offshore oil lease sales in the Alaskan Arctic, having just one, nearly 40-year-old ship capable of year-round oil spill response there is not going to cut it.”

Noting a price tag of approximately $1 billion per heavy icebreaker, the issue brief presents several options, including structural reform to the U.S. Department of Defense budget and a one-time reallocation of specific Department of Defense budget funds—in a manner similar to how the last medium icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, was successfully financed in 1989.

Click here to read the issue brief.

For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, contact Tom Caiazza at tcaiazza@americanprogress.org or 202.481.7141.

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